Rosatom drafts law giving itself control of the Russian Arctic

arctic-ice-melt1 Glacial melt. (Photo: Still from Obama Administration White House video)

Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom has crafted a bill that would give it total control over infrastructure and navigation along the Northern Sea Route, signaling a major consolidation of the country’s Arctic policy.

Though the necessity of having Rosatom manage nearly all state affairs related to the Arctic is unclear, its new role will likely broaden nuclear power usage along remote passages of the 6,000-kilometer sea corridor and defray budgetary push back against some of Moscow’s more extravagant atomic dreams.

The bill, which was published on the Russian government’s official legislation portal, lays out in bold strokes a plan under which Rosatom would have the authority to oversee and regulate shipping through the Russian Arctic, as well as designate, build and manage ports along the way.

The legislation would also give Rosatom the say-so over which ships are allowed to sail through the corridor, as well as oversee reporting on weather and ice conditions, cooperate in organizing rescue operations, and designate the circumstances under which icebreakers must be used for convoys.

Chukchi_Sea ice Researchers aboard an icebreaker studying ice in the Chukchi Sea. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Rosatom’s potentially sweeping new mandate had been the subject of speculation, as Kremlin watching media reported that the reorganization had received the benediction of President Vladimir Putin. The publication of the bill now confirms that those rumors were true.

Sources have told media that there may be some quibbles against the plan arising from other quarters – namely the Ministry of Transportation, which will see nearly all of its previous authority over the Northern Sea Route evaporate.

But those same sources told Kommersant newspaper that, now that Putin has endorsed the plan, there’s very little that could upset it.

It was unclear this week when the legislation would be taken up for debate by the Duma, Russia’s parliament, in which Putin-friendly parties that rarely stray from the Kremlin line hold the majority. Given the almost mythic importance the Kremlin has invested in the Arctic to produce an economic miracle, however, the bill will likely be debated before the year ends.

icebreaker2 The 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker bringing politicians to the North Pole. (Photo: Murmansky Vestnik)

Putting Rosatom in charge of the Northern Sea Route – along which lie Moscow’s oil and natural gas hopes – means rolling back the control of Soviet era ministries and agencies, and placing it in the hands of a state corporation that hasn’t typically dealt with managing Arctic issues.

Such a shift will re-channel enormous state budget resources to Rosatom, and put the corporation in charge of nearly all financial decisions made in the interest of Arctic area development.

The financial boon to Rosatom will be significant, and will defray most niggling economic issues that have thwarted the corporation’s recent plans.

On of these plans, said Andrei Zolotkov, a Murmansk-based nuclear expert with Bellona, would be the building of an enormous multi-billion dollar nuclear icebreaker called the Lider, which until recently had been an extravagant dream.

Previous funding shortfalls for Arctic projects had all but eroded those plans, but with Rosatom in charge of allocating funding in the region, Zolotkov said those problems would disappear.

Rosatom’s new role would also give it considerably more power in lobbying for the construction of nuclear reactors to power the vast and remote expanses along the Arctic corridor, said Zolotkov.

Russia has long mulled various nuclear projects to power oil and gas installations, from delivering natural gas in nuclear submarines to rigging up reactors to drive drilling operations.

Though some of these more waggish ideas may not come to fruition, Rosatom might be able to find fertile funding for its decades-long affection for floating nuclear power plants.

icebreaker-lider3oaoosk A mock-up of the bow of the Lider, as pictured in the Unified Shipbuilding Company's magazine. (Source: oaoosk.ru)

Its first, the controversial Akademik Lomonosov, is expected to go into into service in 2019 in Chukotka. Once there, the floating plant will take over for the Bilibino nuclear plant, which Rosatom will then decommission.

Rosatom first conceived of mass marketing floating nuclear plants abroad in the early 2000s, but few foreign customers, observing the tortured and protracted construction of the Akademik Lomonosov, where interested.

Nevertheless, Rosatom maintains its faith in the project, and because of that, Zolotkov says that this and other projects geared toward supplying nuclear power to the hinterlands will likely receive a boost.

By the current budget, the federal government will be spending $75 million on Northern Sea Route development between 2018 and 2020, and an additional $517 billion until 2025.

The government has likewise said that traffic through the Northern Sea Route has been on an upswing, and reports that 7.4 million tons of cargo carried by 19 vessels was moved through the corridor last year, though that figure is not entirely accurate.

While that much cargo did indeed shuttle between ports within the corridor, only six vessels on total made the entire voyage form Europe to Asia through the Northern Sea Route in 2016 – meaning the passage is far from being competitive with the Suez Canal.

 

 

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no